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Test Strategy

Field Testing vs. Beta Testing: What's the Difference?

Updated on
July 18, 2023

Field testing and beta testing are critical tools in the product development process—they provide an opportunity to gather feedback from target market users on pre-release products. 

The main difference between field testing and beta testing is field tests surface trends on which features customers will naturally use (or not use) by setting testers loose with your product, while beta tests evaluate specific product features by guiding testers to the features and prompting them for feedback. Both types of testing happen prior to the product hitting the market, with field tests typically occurring after the beta phase, immediately preceding the product launch.

While the terms are often used interchangeably, the two types of tests serve distinct purposes in the software development lifecycle. Here, we’ll delve deeper into their differences to review how their distinct purposes help contribute to product success.

Comparing Field Testing and Beta Testing

Think of field testing and beta testing as two different types of guided tours in a museum.

Field testing is like an open-ended tour where visitors roam freely, exploring any exhibit they choose. This gives the museum insights into what exhibits naturally attract more people and how visitors interact with them. The aim is to understand the natural flow and interest of visitors.

Beta testing is like a focused tour where a guide takes visitors to specific exhibits, pointing out certain features and artworks, and asking for feedback on them. The museum uses this to gauge visitor satisfaction and to understand if these exhibits meet the visitors’ expectations.

While both tours happen in the same museum (product), the purpose and method of each are distinct. You wouldn't be able to combine these two tours into one, as they serve different goals and require different approaches. Similarly, field testing and beta testing each have their unique objectives and methods in the product development process.

Let’s examine the differences between these two test types in more detail.

How are goals different?

Field testing evaluates the adoption of product features and gathers data for analytics and machine learning. It answers the question: Will customers use the product? On the other hand, beta testing aims to evaluate customer satisfaction and ensure release readiness. It takes users on a guided tour of the product to answer the question: Do customers like the product?

How is planning different?

When planning for field testing, the focus is on facilitating natural product use and setting up data collection systems. In contrast, beta test planning centers on identifying areas of the product that testers should explore and developing activities to encourage that exploration. Both field and beta test plans would document the testing schedule, testers' requirements, and success criteria.

How is measuring success different?

To gauge success for field testing, teams review the extent of product feature adoption and the quality of data gathered for analytics and machine learning. Conversely, beta testing measures success by identifying and fixing critical issues and making user experience improvements prior to product launch. 

How is inviting testers different?

For field tests, ideal testers should have no prior experience with the pre-release product. Announcing field tests and inviting testers must be handled with care to avoid influencing user behavior. Beta tests involve inviting strangers from your product’s target market for objective, pre-release insights. Beta tests can have an application or sign-up process on public-facing web pages.

Who manages the testing?

Since field testing is conducted on a completed product, it’s often overseen by user research, support, marketing, and/or product teams. While on the other hand, given the product’s less-complete state in beta testing, these tests are typically owned by product, user research, and/or program manager teams

How to Choose the Right Method

Understanding the differences between field and beta testing will help ensure you select the best test type for your goals.

By choosing the correct test type, you optimize the chances of gaining the insights you need—like bugs and usability issues in the case of beta, or how often users access a particular feature in the case of field tests. This enables you to make more informed decisions about product improvements or changes.

In this head-to-head, let’s look at situations where field or beta might be a better fit.

Here are the situations where field testing may be ideal:

  • Looking to have testers use the product naturally over time
  • Involving support, marketing, or product teams
  • Understanding the types (and the frequency) of issues users will have with the product upon launch
  • Evaluating product and feature adoption rates within your target market

Here are the situations that lend themselves more to beta:

  • Evaluating product readiness for launch
  • Understanding whether the product meets your users’ needs
  • Looking to provide activities or tasks to testers to explore the product
  • Learning about product market fit with real world usage

Key Takeaways

  • Field testing focuses on product and feature adoption in a complete, but still unreleased, product, while beta testing assesses customer satisfaction and gauges launch readiness.
  • Field test plans aim for natural product usage, success being determined by how widely the product or feature(s) are adopted. Beta test plans guide users through specific areas of the product to gather feedback, measuring success by the number of issues resolved before launch.
  • Product and user research teams are often involved in both field and beta testing. Support and marketing teams get involved more in field testing, while quality assurance and program manager teams may support beta testing.
  • To understand product adoption as well as to prepare support and other teams for launch, go with field testing. To assess product readiness, evaluate product-market fit, and/or how well the product meets users’ needs, go with beta testing.

Conclusion

Product development is an arduous process that often comes with increasing anxiety as the product gets closer to launch. Both field testing and beta testing are essential in building confidence in a product launch. Understanding the nuances of both field and beta tests as well as knowing which is the best fit for your goals can help ensure a smoother product launch and greater user satisfaction.

Read the Ultimate Guide to Beta
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